Tony Joe White’s Poke Salad Annie couldn’t change my mind about pawpaws. Nor about what deserves recognition as the best native plant song of all time. Nothing against pokeweed, but over the years, I’ve grown partial to pawpaws.
Once you’ve found yonder, and a pawpaw patch, there is no turning back.
But Poke Salad Annie did give me pause.
Tony Joe White and the Foo Fighters ripped through Poke Salad Annie on the Letterman Show last year, accompanied by Paul Shaffer’s horn section. At the end of the show, Letterman came over to the musicians, pointed to White, looked at the audience, and said, “If I were this guy, you could all kiss my ass… That [song] was delightful.”
Poke Salad Annie elbowed Pickin’ Up Pawpaws out of the running for best native plant song.
But not for long.
Poke Salad Annie was delightful, but for reasons of pure joy, I have to stick with Pickin’ Up Pawpaws.
My irrefutable logic: The pawpaw song is easier to whistle.
I grew up singing and whistling “pickin’ up pawpaws/puttin’ ‘em in your pocket/way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.”
As a child, I could only guess there was a pawpaw patch way down yonder—somewhere. The trouble was: No one told me where yonder was. (I bet Tony Joe White knows where yonder is.)
I finally stumbled upon yonder in my early 20s. I was visiting Eastern Kentucky, not far from Paw Paw, KY, when I saw my first pawpaw tree filled with fruit the size of medium-sized Idaho potatoes.
I thought yonder could never be so good again.
But, to my surprise, I found yonder once more, 40 years later, at the St. Peter Claver Community Garden in Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood. (Check this YouTube link for a short 2007 film of the garden, created by Robin Burke and Marcel Cabrera.) Sheri Crabtree, Co-Investigator, with the College of Agriculture, Food Science & Sustainable Systems at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, KY, conducted a thoroughly engaging and informative pawpaw workshop in late August. Kentucky State University has a 12-acre pawpaw plantation (that’s a large patch!) and the only full-time pawpaw research project in the world.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a small, understory, deciduous tree native from southern portions of Ontario, south to northern Florida and west to Texas and Nebraska. Pawpaw, a very cold hardy species (-20F/ 19C) and a cousin of the tropical wild custard apple, sweetsop and soursop, produces temperate America’s largest native fruit.
The fruit is remarkably nutritious. Its health and ecological benefits are numerous. The fruit is rich in vitamins and minerals, and the seeds and leaves have potential cancer cytotoxins. In addition, the pawpaw foliage is the sole host to the zebra swallowtail butterfly.
The fruit’s flavor, on the other hand, needed an adjustment. I am projecting my random impressions from harvested pawaws, from my city garden, that taste bland and forgettable. (I am sure the first wild apples from Kazakhstan left a little to be desired, too.)
There is archaeological evidence of fossilized pawpaw seeds that date to 16,000 years ago. Native Americans relished the fruit. But I looked upon pawpaws the same way I did poke salad: While it may be fun foraging for edible wild things, I was going to make a tomato sandwich on toasted white bread, slathered with Duke’s mayonnaise, as soon as I got home.
There has been significant progress made on Thomas Jefferson’s favorite fruit. (He preferred his pawpaws served chilled.) Nearly fifty cultivars are available today. Crabtree brought fruit samples from several cultivars. I liked the flavor of Sunflower and KSU-Atwood™. Crabtree also brought some delicious pawpaw ice cream and jam. Someone suggested a pawpaw crème brulee.
And I had no idea that pawpaw wine and beer were being produced.
There’s a lot I didn’t know about pawpaws. Andy Moore has written an excellent book called PawPaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit. It’s brimming with well-told history and folklore plus stories about those who are championing the under-appreciated pawpaw. Moore is a compelling storyteller.
The Peter Claver Community Garden has won the Kentucky State Fair blue ribbon for champion pawpaw for the last five years. The late, much-missed Jim Busch, garden site manager, heard about Kentucky State’s pawpaw research. They offered him a few new cultivars to try in 2006. Expecting hefty balled and burlapped improved cultivars, he drove his beater pick-up to Frankfort, only to find a five or six “little pencils” that might have fit in his glove compartment. The truck broke down on the way home, but the little trees were eventually planted, nourished and loved. Five years later the St.Peter Claver Community Garden began their run of state fair blue ribbons. The original five remaining pawpaws, near the garden’s Pawpaw Parkway, are strapping 12-foot tall trees today.
There’s got to be a folk song here somewhere.
Wait a minute, there is.
Pickin’ up pawpaws/puttin’ ‘em in your pocket/way down yonder in Jim Busch’s pawpaw patch.
The 4th International Pawpaw Conference will be held next year at Kentucky State University, Frankfort, KY, at pawpaw harvest time.